Part One: Val Broeksmit
In September 2020 — a year and a half before he was found dead of what coroners now deem blunt force trauma to the torso — my former associate Val Broeksmit is dropped off at the federal building in downtown Los Angeles by his fiancé, a French national by the name of Marie Peter-Toltz who’s currently listed as missing by the state of California. FBI Special Agent David Ko escorts Val through the necessary checkpoints and on to the secure conference room wherein a handful of other FBI officials sit waiting. They bear different titles and hail from regional offices as far-flung as DC, New York, and Texas, but the assembled federal officials all share at least one thing in common: Each is unaware Val had set his phone to record.
“What we’re here for is mainly to see how we can help you,” Agent Ko begins.
What Val wants help with is getting back his fiancé's ten-year-old, recently seized by authorities on a child welfare rap after the nanny died of an overdose at their home. The situation was even messier than one might suppose, to an extent that other FBI agents had already been intervening in the case on Val’s behalf for some time without measurable success.
One of them, Tim Lucey — who among other things served as in-house legal counsel for the FBI New York branch — had called Val a few weeks prior to mollify him after the agent’s testimony in the ongoing child welfare proceedings failed to have the desired results.
“I did not throw you under the bus,” Lucey claimed then. “Two things: I didn’t say you had a chemical dependency problem; I said that you admitted to previously having a chemical dependency problem.”
“Wow. That’s very different from what they wrote. Did you see what they wrote?”
“I did! I did! It’s like night and day! And secondly, I wanted to reach out to you, but I can’t! I mean, um, um, um, it’s like an obstruction of justice type of thing.”
Lucey continued in this incriminating vein for a few minutes until Val interrupted to ask why he’d yet to hear back on tips he’d sent along in recent weeks regarding his usual beat, the Deutsche Bank/Trump investigation. Lucey had an answer for this one, too. “I’m not throwing people under the bus, so that’s on Jeremy and Carmen” — two clauses which would have each been more believable had they not been delivered in immediate succession. Having thus thrown his fellow agents under the bus and promptly assured Val that he would never do the same to him and definitely hadn’t already, Lucey moved on to what he claimed to be the real reason for the call: offering even more bureau assistance with Val’s child endangerment case.
“I called an agent out of Los Angeles, and an agent out of Houston that I know, that deals with this sort of stuff, and they asked if you’d be okay if I forward you their — forwarded them your information. They might be able to help. Okay. One guy’s name is Kevin -”
Val told him to wait a moment while he grabbed a pen or at least pretended to in service to the polite fiction that he wasn’t recording the call.
“It’s actually David Ho, ‘H’ ‘O’… And I don’t know the LA agent’s name”.
But then Lucey wasn’t clear on the Houston agent’s name either despite supposedly knowing him. This would become apparent to Val a few days later on his first call with Ko, whom he twice addressed as “Ho” before the corrections sank in. And it wasn’t too long into the LA meeting itself before it became clear that neither Ko nor the LA agent had any background in child welfare issues whatsoever despite Lucey having gone to the trouble of making this up.
Although David Ko worked out of the Houston branch and had merely been flown up to LA for the meeting — which was also attended by ranking home-turf officials like LA cybercrime chief Special Agent Boeing Shih — he was nonetheless the natural choice to take charge of the proceedings. By this point he’d already been presented with a medal by his patron, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas. The speaker bio from a security conference at which the agent once spoke further marks him out as above the common cut of fed:
Special Agent David Ko joined the FBI as an agent in 2010. Previously, he had worked as an FBI intelligence analyst and as a scientist researching neurobiology. David has worked on squads investigating organized crime, violent crime, and cyber. He maintains a number of certifications in forensics, incident response, and hacker tools and techniques. David is also a member of the FBI’s SWAT team and a certified sniper.
Here at the LA meeting, Ko goes through the motions of selling Val on the FBI’s obvious fiction that all these high-ranking federal agents had come from across the country “mainly to see how we can help you.”
“You and I have talked, but we should probably rehash a little bit about what your situation is, how the hearing went and everything. Just make sure we’re all on the same page. Because like we told you, right — if we’re gonna be able to help, we have to know how we can help, how best to help you. That way we can go forward.”
Val’s been dealing with transparently dishonest operators for years and expects to get low-effort hustled, so he’s in a hurry to get that part over with.
“First, tell me what you want,” he demands.
“I mean, the thing is, I’m not going to tell you exactly what we want.”
So they set the subject aside for the time being, and over the following hour Val presents a rather meandering account of the circumstances leading up to the state having seized his fiance’s child from their home. When Ko asks him what he and his fiance are being accused of, Val initially claims not to know. Then it seems to occur to him that this is hardly a viable lie under the circumstances as he promptly changes course and begins listing the accusations in great detail in the course of dismissing each one in turn.
“I’m very open about my past. I’ve taken drugs! Big deal!”
“You’re not on drugs now?”
“No!” Val is indignant at the very idea that he might be on drugs. He’s also on drugs. That had been emphasized in a New York Times profile article some months prior, and though the reporter in question had plenty of reason to mischaracterize Val and did so several times, this particular claim happened to be true.
“The best thing I can think of right now is influencing how you’re perceived”, Ko explains at some point. As for the accusation that Val and Marie had failed to regularly keep food in the house, for instance, Ko notes that the simple tactic of showing receipts for weekly Amazon deliveries would be worthwhile. “All of these things can be easily refuted by evidence you can show,” he concludes. But evidence is a nuanced thing: “There’s no evidence that the FBI’s helping you — you know, if we give you money to do that, that’s just cash that you have.”
After a few more similarly unfortunate remarks (“If it’s a question of money, we can sometimes get you some money”; “The other thing is, we have to keep our relationship secret”), a minor impasse is reached when Val tries to vape but Ko refuses him on the grounds that it’s against the rules. Just an hour prior Ko had ordered the security checkpoint to violate basic procedure by allowing Val into the most sensitive recesses of a major FBI bureau despite not having any form of picture ID. But then Ko found this rule inconvenient, and rules are nuanced things — and so are laws, which is why Val is comfortable confessing to several federal crimes throughout the course of the meeting, mostly involving hacking, as well as naming several co-conspirators who happen to share his status as state-sanctioned criminal.
Having gone over in broad outline what the FBI could do for him, Val moves from subject to subject in hopes of hitting upon what it is the feds want from him in return, drawing from his almost singularly extensive involvement with the high-stakes political and economic conflicts in which he’d become enmeshed since 2014. It was then that Wall Street Journal reporter David Enrich had proposed to Val that the recent death of his father — a Deutsche Bank executive who’d been privy to some of the darker elements of the bank’s dual relationship with Trump and the Russian kleptocracy, and expressed misgivings over same — perhaps hadn’t actually been a suicide after all.
The breadth of Val’s adventures in the period that followed may be gleaned by quoting Enrich himself in a 2019 email to Financial Times reporter Catherine Belton:
Catherine, I am nearing completion of my book, and I wanted to let you know exactly how you’re likely to be mentioned. I would welcome any feedback.
You contacted Val in late 2016. You identified yourself as an FT reporter. You told Val you’d heard about him from a fellow journalist and that you were interested in writing for the FT about his and his father’s story. You flew to Rome, where Val was, on New Year’s Eve. You spent the night roaming the city with Val, ending up at the Coliseum around midnight.
The next day Val showed you some of his father’s files. You were enthusiastic about what you’d seen and heard, and you promised you’d be back in touch. You returned to London.
A few weeks later, on Jan. 26, 2017, Val told you that he was in trouble- he was out of money. You told him you had an idea and would call back asap. A short while later, you told Val that you had someone who’d be interested in paying for his father’s files: Glenn Simpson. You said “he’s looking for stuff against Trump.” Val told you he was game, and 30 minutes later Simpson called him and agreed to pay Val $10,000, plus covering his travel and accommodations.
It’s worth noting for the record that Belton denied aspects of this:
What you intend to write about me is inaccurate. Though I’m not willing to disclose anything that passes between me and any of my sources, I repeat once again that I was not party to any financial deal Val may have reached with anyone. These false allegations are defamatory to me as a professional journalist and I’ll object in the strongest terms should this be printed.
… but then it’s also worth noting that Belton seems to have gone silent on the issue after Enrich revealed that Val had provided him with all the texts and financial transactions in question. “On a more personal journalist-to-journalist note, and please correct me if I’m wrong, but your prior statement to me appears to have been a straight-up lie, which is extremely disheartening.”
Enrich was perhaps being a little disingenuous with this last comment given he’d soon find himself in the very same position when it came time to obfuscate some of his own dealings with Val and other parties — dealings which, as we’ll see, could be deemed more illicit than Belton’s in intent, scope, public impact, and the lengths Enrich would eventually go to derail inquiries by other journalists. Indeed, we’ll see lots of things.
The FBI, meanwhile, would have its own ties to cover up, especially when Val first went missing in April 2021. This led to some public speculation that Val’s status as a federal cooperator against dangerous entities might be worth taking into account. Or perhaps it had something to do with the New York Times article that had described Val’s ongoing drug use and thrown in some less viable claims for good measure. A Los Angeles detective involved in the missing persons investigation relayed the FBI’s position to an inquiring reporter:
“We know about the article. Initially, we thought it might be something, but we are fairly confident now it’s not the case, that it has anything to do with the information he gave the FBI”, Beall said, citing the fact that years have passed since the FBI spoke with Broeksmit. “We can’t say with absolute certainty, but we don’t think it’s the case.”
Of course Val was not only still speaking with the FBI but also still working for them; in another recorded phone call some time after the LA meeting, Ko warns Marie that Val will likely have to disappear for some period as part of his role in things to come. Later Val re-emerged without explanation after his cover had already been blown anyway. But reporter Edwin Folven thinks this is all bang-up crackerjack copy and runs Val’s non-relationship with the FBI as “fact” because although it’s hard to prove a negative, it’s easy to just sort of go along with one.
(As a bonus, both the reporter and the feds now have at least a pragmatic interest in avoiding the fact that one of them lied and the other presented the lie as fact, especially if that fact becomes important later — in which case it also becomes crucial for both parties to avoid the subject altogether, even if the subject is dead and this is perhaps even more noteworthy than when they were simply missing. The moral of this story is that it’s always in the best interest of the feds to lie to reporters about matters of significance and to make them as complicit as possible in spreading those lies. Indeed, this will prove to be the moral of quite a few stories.)
Back at the LA FBI meeting, Val continues to try to steer the conversation to the substantive issues he still trusts the feds to pursue. “Trump had these loans from Deutsche Bank, and David sat on them for a very long time”. He accuses Enrich of engaging in an unspecified clandestine agreement with the firm’s PR rep. Significant portions of what he sets forth can indeed be verified by emails, recordings, and other documents Val had in his possession.
“And there’s the whole Russian spy thing as well,” Val reminds the assembled FBI agents, who turn out not to be terribly bothered about Russian spy things.
“If Tim already knows about it…” Ko demures. But at length he acknowledges all this to be “good information” and promises to pass it on to someone who handles economic fraud (presumably Tim has the Russian spy under control). Then, as if it had just now occurred to him, Ko asks Val if he’s involved in any groups, and it’s at this point Val realizes why he’s here.
“You guys are in that Signal group, aren’t you?”
The two parlay a bit further until both are comfortable openly acknowledging the real subject of the meeting and the reason it had to be approached with unusual delicacy: A Signal group frequented, as Val describes it, by “some of the greatest journalists, some of the greatest activists, some of the greatest hackers, some of the greatest writers.”
This was all true enough, though the “greatest hackers” in question numbered just half a dozen and would gradually turn out to be made up of FBI cooperators like Val himself — plus a few more exotic specimens, such as the US counter-intelligence operative whom courts had granted a name change in the course of a 2014 sealed hearing for the express purpose of concealing the asset’s status from the public. That leaves the remainder of the group, which, as Val notes in response to a rare question from Agent Shih, numbers some 96 people, comprised of left-wing journalists and activists, and who use the channel chiefly for conducting investigations into misconduct by the police and far right — and thus a good portion of the FBI itself — while working on projects with assorted major outlets, NGOs, and entities like the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. The revelations produced by its individual members in years prior had done immense damage to state and corporate institutions around the world. More to the point, they also focused on immensely powerful right-wing figures with significant interests in many of these same institutions, most notably Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, Pierre Omidyar, and other members of what their shared employee, the neo-Nazi agitator and former Daily Stormer administrator Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer privately refers to as “the Paypal mafia”.
What made the situation even trickier was the person who created the group: a megalomaniacal and self-righteous public adventurer who’d spent the past decade tangling with everyone involved, from Thiel to Weev to Omidyar to the FBI and much else besides.
“And this one is Barrett’s. When you said you were from Houston, I thought: Shit, he’s after Barrett Brown.”
Full disclosure: I’m Barrett Brown.
“Barrett’s on the radar. But you know that. He’s been arrested already.”
Ko is being generous. By this point I’d done four years in federal prison over my role in a novel series of operations in 2011 and 2012 targeting assets controlled by billionaire fascist Peter Thiel as well as his assorted allies in the intelligence, law enforcement, and information technology sectors. The prosecution was sufficiently bungled as to have served as a key factor in Reporters Without Borders reducing the United State’s global press freedom ranking by 13 places; worse yet, I took the opportunity to write a column from prison that won the National Magazine Award for commentary and much of what I wrote was pretty mean. Shortly after my release I was re-arrested by US Marshalls for giving interviews to Vice and PBS before being released without charge four days later, prompting yet another round of unwanted international scrutiny into how the feds actually function. I was a tough nut to crack — indeed, in more than one sense.
“He’s in rehab right now,” Val offers, suddenly clear on why he’s getting star treatment from the FBI and why so many of its agents are willing to attach themselves to a disturbing child endangerment case in exchange for his cooperation.
“Well, what’s Barrett up to?” asks Agent Ko.
It turns out I’ve been gathering incriminating materials on the FBI and those of its asset networks that specialize in targeting left-wing activists and journalists. Join me in the months to come as we explore this fascinating subject together and perhaps even meet some new friends along the way.